In February, an FBI memo was leaked labeling traditional Catholic Christians as potential terrorist threats. The memo also implied those who attend the Latin Mass are potentially racists.
Catholic leaders quickly complained at the injustice of the pretext for surveillance of their coreligionists, noting the grave First Amendment infringement of the FBI surveilling conservative Christians and that Latin Masses draw Catholics from many ethnic groups. Even left-wing Catholics came to traditionalists’ defense.
The FBI later retracted the memo, but for many it was yet another sign that many federal agencies have been politicized and now serve as arms of the far-left wing of the Democratic party. In his recent book, “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover,” Stanford University religious studies professor Lerone A. Martin paints the FBI under Hoover as fervently Christian and conservative, smearing conservatives and Christians by association with the famously authoritarian Hoover.
In his epilogue, Martin reveals one of his principal goals of “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover”: “canceling” Hoover and a radical reform of the FBI. His final chapter includes a detailed plan of reforms he desires for the FBI.
Mixing Government Power with Religious Impulses
“The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover” also explores a little-known facet of Hoover: his Christianity. Hoover was born in a devout Presbyterian household in Washington, D.C.’s Capital Hill neighborhood. As a child, Hoover studied the Westminster Shorter Catechism as well as the Bible.
Hoover studied law at George Washington University, eventually joining the Justice Department and then the Bureau of Investigation. After Hoover rose to director, Martin claims Hoover attempted to create a Christian culture at the bureau, penning articles for publications such as Christianity Today and inviting agents to Jesuit retreats.
Martin says Hoover saw the fight against communism and radicalism (including, Martin admits, right-wing radicalism) in the United States as a spiritual struggle, and he wanted his agents to feel the same way. Hoover eventually became known throughout the country as a staunch Christian enemy of communism, even prompting some Americans to write to the FBI director for spiritual advice.
Smearing All Christians with Hoover’s Sins
Yet for much of the book, Martin unfairly links conservative Christians both today and during Hoover’s life with white supremacist and white nationalist groups. Throughout “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover,” Martin uses the term “white Christian nationalist” to label conservative Protestants and Catholics.
This ignores the complete contradiction between classic Christianity and the materialist, exclusivist, and often sadistic and violent character of racial nationalism. Indeed, the core of the white nationalist critique of Christianity is that it is too “soft” and “universalist” in its outlook. Moreover, the religious right has for decades worked with conservative Jews and secular-minded people on common causes.
One of Martin’s most fascinating and informative chapters is “Crusader.” It details J. Edgar’s rivalry with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as the FBI’s recruitment of Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, a conservative black pastor who clashed with MLK. Like his sometimes friend and occasional rival President Richard Nixon, Martin admits, Hoover attempted to find a middle ground between the “right-wing” radicalism of the KKK and the left-wing Marxism of Martin Luther King Jr.
Both the KKK and MLK, in Hoover’s view, were threats to the established order of middle-class American life. Hoover viewed the KKK as “sadistic, vicious white trash…” As opposed to Dr. King’s protests, however, J. Edgar desired a gradual approach of education and moral conversation among America’s black community.
This view was shared at the time by Christianity Today, which like Abraham Lincoln in his later years opposed both legal segregation and forced integration. Martin is perhaps correct to criticize Hoover for his gradualist approach to civil rights as well as Hoover’s alleged reluctance to prosecute civil rights violations; however, despite Hoover’s condemnation of the Klan, the FBI director is labeled by Martin in a similar category to the Klan as a “white Christian nationalist.”
Linking Christians with White Supremacy
On Dec. 6, 1973, the CONTINTELPRO documents were released after NBC’s Carl Stern made a successful Freedom of Information Act request. COININTELPRO, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says, was an FBI operation to “discredit and neutralize organizations considered subversive to U.S. political stability. It was covert and often used extralegal means to criminalize various forms of political struggle and derail several social movements.” Martin notes that after these revelations, many evangelicals publicly distanced themselves from Hoover.
Martin, however, also disapprovingly notes that the coalition of evangelicals and Catholics fighting against the radical left, which Hoover helped to forge, continues to this day. This point is the “meat and potatoes” of the book: Martin claims Hoover helped to establish the religious right, which helped to propel President Reagan, both Bushes, and more recently (and worst of all, in Martin’s view) Donald Trump to the White House, not to mention a legion of Republican politicians at the national and state level.
It seems it is Martin’s goal to help to document this alleged movement, neutralize it, and eventually purge it from power. Martin argues that by voting for Republican figures like Reagan and Trump, “white evangelicals” are continuing to “ignore, forget, or refuse their history,” making them “doomed” to repeat it.
Martin further complains that the FBI is “overwhelmingly white” and alleges it still has strong ties to Christian conservatives, which Martin links to “white supremacist extremism.” That would be news to the Christian conservatives horrified by the FBI’s recent raids on the previous president and on an unarmed and nonviolent Catholic father over his pro-life activism.
In “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover,” Martin is right to note flaws in Hoover’s character and criticize his abuse of government spy power in his feud with MLK as well as the FBI director’s “gradualist” approach to the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, Martin’s book is a sign that the rules of the American political game have changed. No longer is it necessary for one to actually embrace hateful ideology or belong to violent movements to be labeled an extremist.
Lerone A. Martin. “The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2023). 340pp. $29.95.